Passing Time in Fiction

Following my post on middles, I reflected on what it is about the middle which is specifically giving me the most trouble. I've decided it's because the middle is where I need time to pass, without specifically showing it. The beginning runs fairly fast, over a few weeks, and the ending runs quickly as well -- over just a few days in fact. In the middle, however, nearly a year must pass.

You know those sequences in movies? Where they show montages of characters doing things, intersperced with pictures of the trees losing their leaves, growing frosty, then budding into green? How does one show this in a novel? Especially because I want the reader to have a sense of being right there with the characters all along, I don't want to say, "A year later..." because that feels like we've left the characters to their own devices for a year, then returned to them. I'd like to show little bits of scene and scenery every half dozen weeks as the year goes by, then return to the blow by blow action at the end.

And all of this is complicated by the fact that I'm juggling two timelines, because there's a flashback sequence interspliced with the main storyline.

What are your best techniques for passing time that you've used or read? Any ideas?


Scott said…
I think showing the passage of lengthy amounts of time is one of the most difficult tasks a writer faces.

I made it easy on myself in one manuscript - each chapter is a different month in the year. It was a neat concept that worked for that manuscript.

For the most part, when I'm skipping a few months in between . . . I try to start the chapter with "Over the last several months . . ." Once I've established the passage of time, I can fill in some of the details that happened over the course of the chapter.

I'm not sure how to help with the passage of a year, especially with multiple timelines going on, plus a flashback. Dang, you like the difficult things in life, don't you? ; )

Flower said…
I have been reading the series: Write Great Fiction. One of the books in the series, I think it is The Plot & Structure book, teaches you how to write a successful middle. I have found it very helpful.
Also, this published author has some great tips as well.
Ban said…
grief, that's a tough one ... i do like scott's idea of making chapters = months. you could try that and break the year down into 12 chapters highlighting points in each so we still feel connected to the characters. in my main WiP my chapters are each + to a day (not every day is represented btw). wish i had some more to offer ...
Davin Malasarn said…
Authors show time passing in so many different ways. I've read books where the author says something as simple as, "Three months later," or "Twenty years later." Other books don't even bother to mention it. The writers will just jump to the next scene, trusting that the reader will be able to keep up. Olive Kitteridge, this year's Pulitzer winner does this, and I think it's effective and interesting. Some writers will quickly summarize, and even though we're often told that's bad, a good writer can make summary sound interesting.
Passage of time was a real problem for me in my last book, too. There is one chapter that covers about three years, and I sort of found myself leaping ahead by six months at a time or so. I think I used a lot of narrative summary or even just saying, "Six months later..." As long as there was a sort of continued action or thought bridging the gap in time, it seemed to work out. "I did not find out about X until three months later when..." sort of stuff, so that you keep talking about one subject through the jump forward in time and you don't confuse your reader because you keep focus on the event/character/theme/whatever and the movement across the calendar is incidental.
XiXi said…
I am reading "Plot and Structure" by James Scott Bell too. It's proving helpful so far.

I definitely know what you mean, and I'm sorry to say I face the same problem. I don't have any great solutions to it either, but if you have a breakthrough, then I'd love to know. :-)
Tara, that's a good question, and one I've found myself asking for a long time, even after successfully doing it in my own WIPs. I always do it differently, it seems. It depends on the story, the feel you have, the structure you've set up, etc. Some writers put the passage of time as a header to the chapter, some work it into the prose. Some mention it with the seasons. Some do it with dialogue. Some aren't clear at all how much time has passed, and it still works. It just depends.

Crappy answer, I know. I think reading helps with this a lot. I like to pay attention to these things as I'm reading, and that usually gives me more and more ideas to work with.
Gutsy Living said…
Thanks for following my blog. I have to say, since I'm writing a memoir which is a slice of one year of my family's life in Belize, that is not a problem for me yet. Sounds like you've got the talent to handle this passage of time.
Dal Jeanis said…
It's just like in a movie... pick one image that shows the difference between the two time zones.

"The snow was already melting and the grass was poking through our prior cart tracks when we returned by that place..."

"He was roughly four inches taller... had it already been two years?"

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